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No Limits: Activity Options for Kids with Disabilities

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No Limits: Activity Options for Kids with Disabilities

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More About No Limits

For more about the program, contact Tim Gattenby

Dates: Tuesdays and Thursdays, June 11-July 30, 2015



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Madison, Wisconsin - A University of Wisconsin Department of Kinesiology initiative that helps children with physical and cognitive disabilities participate in exercise and group sports activities has roots in the American Family Children's Hospital's pediatric orthopedics, rehabilitation and cancer programs.

For the fifth straight summer, "No Limits Kids Fitness" will offer eight weeks of fitness classes at the UW Natatorium for 7- to 18-year-old kids with disabilities. University of Wisconsin distinguished faculty associate Tim Gattenby organizes the program. With a subset of future physical and occupational therapists, physicians and physical educators from the Department of Kinesiology, he works to develop activity regimens for children with cerebral palsy, spina bifida and a variety of disabilities that too often exclude them from sports their peers take for granted.

"These groups can fall through the cracks. Kids who have disabilities don't have an outlet," Gattenby says. "When you get to later elementary school and middle school, the acceleration in opportunities for fitness and participation is exponential for non-disabled children. It goes from fun to strategy and technique and strength and conditioning, and the kids with disabilities are left behind. That's where the need is."

In 2011, three clinicians from American Family Children's Hospital joined Gattenby in trying to fill that need. Dr. Blaise Nemeth from Pediatric Orthopedics met informally with Wendy Stewart, a physical therapist who works with pediatric oncology patients, and physical therapist Jim Miedaner to discuss the challenge of introducing physical activity to patients with substantial physical disabilities or struggling in the aftermath of cancer treatments. Like Gattenby, they saw a gaping hole in the opportunities afforded to children who couldn't take part in gym class or recess like "normal" kids do.

"The options are few. It's ironic, because Madison is such a recreation-oriented community," Stewart says. "These kids don't quite fit into the enormous number of sports and programs that are out there."

The lack of exercise opportunities for these kids has both short-term and long-term ramifications. Conditions such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida erode the musculoskeletal system because the body cannot move as efficiently as it can for a healthy person.

"Their bodies just wear out sooner than yours and mine," Miedaner says. "You get normal issues superimposed on these diagnoses. The kids go from crutches to walkers, and from walkers to wheelchairs."

Young cancer patients, meanwhile, often struggle to regain the movement and physicality they had prior to diagnosis and treatment.

"Survivorship has increased dramatically, but they don't step back into that same place," Stewart says. "During treatment they've necessarily had to be sedate and quiet while their bodies are going through this process. It has an impact on endurance and fitness, and (as they get older) secondary health problems" - most prominently obesity and diabetes - "can crop up."

The pilot program Gattenby, Nemeth, Stewart and Miedaner developed launched in the summer of 2011 and met twice a week for eight weeks. The first half of the two-hour sessions was devoted to fitness - developing functional strength and endurance according to the kids' abilities.

Kids with physical disabilities "often have compensatory strategies, which are rough on their bodies," Miedaner says. "We came up with better strategies. For example, treadmill work will help with cardiovascular fitness, but we can also work on coordination and timing and making sure step lengths are efficient. We helped them target things like hip extension or working on your core and seeing how that translates into functional activity."

Given the severity of the kids' disabilities, one might assume No Limits requires intricate, expensive equipment. But Gattenby actually takes the opposite tack, saying he looks "for equipment that's universal and is naturally useable by a lot of people."

He points to a free motion weight machine as an example. Two stacks of weights are attached individually by cables to arms that can pivot horizontally and vertically. It's something you'd see in any fitness center, but for No Limits the design is versatile enough to accommodate exercisers who might not have function in their legs or can only lift with one side of their bodies.

"That's not designed for people with disabilities," Gattenby says. "It's universally useable."

The sessions' second hours were devoted to play, with an emphasis on personal preference.

"Let's focus on you - what you want to do and what you like to do," Gattenby says. “If we tailor our prescriptions to their interests, they'll be more inspired to work on it."

And inspiration may encourage No Limits participants to keep exercising long after the pilot program ended.

"We were introducing them to activities that would allow kids to get into the more lifelong opportunities," Miedaner says. "It was a try-and-do. Let's see what the kids are interested in, see what they like."

The options were plentiful, from group sports such as baseball and football to more eclectic, individual pursuits.

"We dance. We do martial arts. We do biking," Gattenby says. "We get them up and moving and understanding that they can be as active as anyone."

Gattenby and his charges worked with the School of Engineering to design a "sit-ski" - a hybrid snowboard and skateboard - that kids who have trouble with balance can ride while seated, and even incorporated a laser rifle into a modified biathlon event that proved popular.

"They absolutely love it," says Danielle Radloff, a senior kinesiology major who participated in last summer's No Limits program as part of her academic course load. "When they're out there playing they light up, and it's contagious."

"Throughout most of their lives these kids weren't able to do the activities we were doing," says senior kinesiology student Elliot Domask, who also served as a No Limits assistant last summer. "Here people are focusing on them and they're able to do everything they want to do. As the class went on it was cool to see how happy they were."

The joy of participation leads to benefits ancillary to physical fitness, as well. Stewart marvels at the transformation she's witnessed in one of her former oncology patients who participated in No Limits.

"He loved it," she says. "This child's self-esteem, who he is in the world, has been really impacted in a positive way."

"It changes kids' confidence," says Gattenby. "Not only do they get hooked on activity. They become leaders in health and fitness."

And some want to share it with others, which led to a mentoring program during which past No Limits participants work with current enrollees.

"We shouldn't always be thinking we should help people with different types of abilities," Gattenby says. "But we can help them help themselves. We can inspire them to be the leaders, and then they'll just take off and do it themselves."

"No Limits is not about being unable or different or sick," Stewart says. "No Limits fitness offers health and wellness in a peer setting for a great group of kids. Kids, otherwise, without a lot of recreational options. What a great model. We could use more like it in our Madison community."

Date Published: 04/20/2015